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Learn About the Humanitarian Crisis at the U.S.-Mexico Border
Fact Sheet Regarding Humanitarian Crisis at U.S.-Mexico Border
Why are so many unaccompanied children and mothers with children coming to the U.S.? Why the sudden surge? Who/what created the problem?
First, it is important to note that children and families are seeking asylum throughout the region, not just in the United States. According to United Nations Higher Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), asylum applications in countries other than the United States have risen more than 700% since 2008; Nicaragua alone saw a 238% increase last year, according to Leslie Velez, Senior Protection Officer, Washington Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, in 7/9/2014 press call). Mexico also serves as a country of asylum in the region, and in 2013 they received 5500 unaccompanied children fleeing El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.
While the number of children and families fleeing to the United States has risen dramatically this year and is projected to reach over 90,000 people by the end of the fiscal year, the regional crisis that has forced internal and international displacement of thousands from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador has been underway for several years. Flows of children from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador began to double in 2011, jumping from approximately 6,000 kids in 2008 to 52,000 thus far in the 2014 fiscal year.
Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are struggling with what is essentially an undeclared regional war, with murder rates nearly 20 times higher than that of the United States, street gangs controlling wide swaths of neighborhoods throughout the region, government corruption, and political instability. (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/09/central-america-child-migrants-us-border-crisis).  “For many people the choice is to flee or to die,” says Carlos Paz, director of the San Pedro Sula office of the church organization Cáritas (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/09/central-america-child-migrants-us-border-crisis).
What is required by U.S. law in regard to unaccompanied children? How much time does the process take for a child? What happens to the child — who takes care of the child, where does the child live, etc. — during the process?
Unaccompanied alien children who are apprehended by U.S. immigration officials must be placed in the care of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Once there, in addition to meeting their basic physical needs, children must be screened for protection needs, including determining whether children face persecution, torture, or are victims of human trafficking. Children may be released into foster care. http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/orr/programs/ucs/about
While ORR maintains a legal access program, with the rapid expansion of the system a breakdown in legal services is resulting. Without access to representation, children face little chance of understanding how to file an asylum claim or seek other legal protection in the United States.
What is the difference between an “immigrant” and a “refugee”?
A “refugee” is a particular category of “immigrant” who is seeking to enter another country out of fear of persecution. International law defines a “refugee” as a person who is outside their country of nationality and is afraid to return to that country or avail themselves of that country’s protection owing
to a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.
The refugee protection system emerged following the horrific failure of the international community to protect people fleeing the Holocaust to ensure that people fleeing persecution would not be turned back at the border before being given the chance to explain why they needed protection.
Has U.S. immigration policy caused the problem?
U.S. immigration policy has neither caused nor fueled this crisis. Children and families from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are fleeing the violence that has resulted from the breakdown in the rule of law in their countries. They are seeking safety elsewhere in their own countries and in countries throughout the region, including the United States.
The situation at the U.S.-Mexico border should be understood as a humanitarian situation resulting from the regional refugee crisis. To date, the Obama administration’s declaration of this as a serious humanitarian situation is correct and appropriate. This crisis is not an immigration “problem” that will be helped by deployment of more enforcement resources to apprehend illegal border crossers or by weakening international protection systems.  While any issue of migration always raises concerns about impact on US immigration policy, the focus on the border issue without recognizing the humanitarian obligations of this regional refugee crisis fails to address the problem.
Is it true that unaccompanied children from Mexico and from Canada are treated differently by the U.S. than those from other countries.  If so, why?
While Mexican children also may present international protection concerns, including trafficking, domestic violence, and violence at the hands of criminal armed actors, the number of unaccompanied Mexican children seeking protection in the United States has not increased as a result of this crisis, and remains steady at approximately 3% of all unaccompanied alien children in US custody (http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/orr/programs/ucs/about). As citizens of contiguous countries, however, Mexican and Canadian children are exempted from U.S. law requiring that unaccompanied children be placed in ORR custody.
Why can’t the children be immediately deported?
These children, like all people seeking protection, must be given the chance to be heard. The message from the Obama administration cannot be “don’t come, you’ll be sent back” without violating our obligations to ensure that everyone who seeks asylum from persecution or protection from torture or human trafficking.
If a child is deported and has to return to his/her home country, how does the child get there? How is the child reconnected with his or her family? Who is responsible for a child once that child has been deported?
Children, like all others deported from the United States, generally are returned to the capital cities of their countries. The United States takes no particular steps to protect children upon their deportation.

Click here to view/download the Fact Sheet Regarding Humanitarian Crisis at U.S./Mexico Border 
(June 10, 2014).

Click here for The Advocates' media advisory, Local Immigration Experts Available to Discuss Humanitarian Crisis on U.S./Mexico Border (June 10, 2014)
Take Action:
  • Contact your Representative and Senators by calling the Capitol Switchboard
  • Meet with your Representative and Senators and their local staff
  • Write your Representative and Senators
More information:
Family Detention Backgrounder (Detention Watch Network)
NGO Letter Opposing New Family Detention Centers (Detention Watch Network, July 7, 2014)
Message Tips & Suggestions (Alliance for Citizenship)
Helpful & Not So Helpful Messaging (Alliance for Citizenship)
Crisis at the Border: We must make sure that humanitarian protections work and American values are upheld (Michele Garnett McKenzie, The Advocates for Human Rights, MinnPost, July 11, 2014)
Kids First: A Response to the Southern Border Humanitarian Crisis from Congressional Progressive Caucus (July 10, 2014)
AILA Recommendations on Legal Standards and Protections for Unaccompanied Children (American Immigration Lawyers Association)*Describes in detail the unaccompanied minor process
About Unaccompanied Children's Services (Office of Refugee Resettlement)
IACHR Expresses Deep Concern on the Situation of Children Migrants in the United States (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, June 20, 2014)
Stories from Children Affected by Gang Violence in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador
 “Despite the horrific conditions that some of the children underwent in making the journey to the United States, the majority stated they would still make the trip, even with the knowledge of how difficult the journey was. As one child explained, ‘If you stay you will die, if you leave, you might…either way it’s better to try.’” Women’s Refugee Commission Report
Cristian Omar Reyes, an 11-year-old sixth grader from Honduras lost his father in March after he was robbed and murdered by gangs while working as a security guard protecting a pastry truck. Three people he knows were murdered this year. Four others were gunned down on a nearby corner in the span of two weeks at the beginning of this year. A girl his age resisted being robbed of $5. She was clubbed over the head and dragged off by two men who cut a hole in her throat, stuffed her panties in it, and left her body in a ravine across the street from Cristian’s house. (New York Times, 7/11/14)
Anthony O. Castellanos, a 13-year old from Honduras, disappeared from his gang-ridden neighborhood, so his younger brother, Kenneth, hopped on his green bicycle to search for him, starting his hunt at a notorious gang hangout known as the “crazy house.” They were found within days of each other, both dead. Anthony, 13, and a friend had been shot in the head; Kenneth, 7, had been tortured and beaten with sticks and rocks. They were among seven children murdered in the La Pradera neighborhood of San Pedro Sula in April alone. (New York Times, 7/9/14)
During a recent late-night visit to the San Pedro Sula morgue, more than 60 bodies, all victims of violence, were seen piled in a heap, each wrapped in a brown plastic bag. While picking bullets out of a 15-year-old boy shot 15 times, technicians discussed how they regularly received corpses ofchildren under 10, and sometimes as young as 2. Last week, in nearby Santa Barbara, an 11-year-old had his throat slit by other children, because he did not pay a 50-cent extortion fee. “At first we saw a lot of kids who were being killed because when the gang came for their parents, they happened to be in the car or at the location with them,” said Dr. Darwin Armas Cruz, a medical examiner who works the overnight shift. “Now we see kids killing kids. They kill with guns, knives and even grenades.” (New York Times, 7/9/14)
An older man with two grand-daughters, ages seven and 10, said: "I left Honduras because they already killed three of my four sons. I can't stay to wait for them to take away my grand-daughters. There the gangs kill for anything, take our houses, our pay. Everything." Asked if he wanted to go home, a six-year-old Honduran boy began to cry and told the reporter: "They kill people there, and you can't play." (La Jornada, 6/29/14)
Nodwin, an 11-year old from Honduras: “Big people force the children to sell bad things, and if they don’t do it, they rape them or they kill them.” Nodwin once witnessed a boy his own age gang-raped in a neighborhood park after the child refused to join a local drug gang. “They were stripping a kid naked, and I went to tell the kid’s mom. Later, I went home, but I didn’t want to leave my house, because they could have done the same thing to me.” (PBS NewsHour, 6/20/14)
Jenny opened her front door one day and there were pieces of a body thrown in a plastic bag on her doorstep as a warning from the gangs about what would happen to her if she did not become the "girlfriend" of a gang member. As related to a Women’s Refugee Commission staff member during a focus group discussion.
Maritza, a 15-year old from El Salvador reported the following: I am here because the gang threatened me. One of them “liked” me. Another gang member told my uncle that he should get me out of there because the guy who liked me was going to do me harm. In El Salvador they take young girls, rape them and throw them in plastic bags. My uncle told me it wasn’t safe for me to stay there. (UNCHR report)
David, a 16-year old from Guatemala, reported the following: Gangs in a nearby neighborhood wanted to kill me and some other people. They wanted me to give them money, but what money was I supposed to give them? I didn’t have any. They asked me if I knew who they were, if I could identify them. I said no, because I knew if I said yes they would kill me. They held my cousin and me for three hours, tied up. My cousin was able to untie the rope and he helped me untie mine. We heard gun shots and we ran. They kept looking for us, but we escaped. (UNCHR report)
Kevin, a 17-year old from Honduras, reported the following: My grandmother wanted me to leave. She told me: “If you don’t join, the gang will shoot you. If you do join, the rival gang will shoot you—or the cops will shoot you. But if you leave, no one will shoot you. (UNCHR report)
Josephine, a 16-year old from El Salvador: The head of the gang that controlled her neighborhood wanted Josefina to be his girlfriend and threatened to kidnap her or to kill one of her family members if she didn’t comply. Josefina knew another girl from her community who had become the girlfriend of a gang member and had been forced to have sex with all the gang members. Josefina didn’t want this for herself. Once the gang started harassing her, she didn’t feel safe, so she stopped going to school and stayed at home until her family was able to make arrangements for her to travel to the U.S. (UNCHR report)
Alfonso, a 17-year old from El Salvador, reported the following: The problem was that where I studied there were lots of M-18 gang members, and where I lived was under control of the other gang, the MS-13. The M-18 gang thought I belonged to the MS-13. They had killed the two police officers who protected our school. They waited for me outside the school. It was a Friday, the week before Easter, and I was headed home. The gang told me that if I returned to school, I wouldn’t make it home alive. The gang had killed two kids I went to school with, and I thought I might be the next one. After that, I couldn’t even leave my neighborhood. They prohibited me. I know someone whom the gangs threatened this way. He didn’t take their threats seriously. They killed him in the park. He was wearing his school uniform. If I hadn’t had these problems, I wouldn’t have come here. (UNCHR report)
Mario, a 17-year old from El Salvador, reported the following: I left because I had problems with the gangs. They hung out by a field that I had to pass to get to school. They said if I didn’t join them, they would kill me. I have many friends who were killed or disappeared because they refused to join the gang. I told the gang I didn’t want to. The more they saw me refusing to join, the more they started threatening me and telling me they would kill me if I didn’t. They beat me up five times for refusing to help them. The pain from the beatings was so bad, I couldn’t even stand up. They killed a friend of mine in March because he didn’t want to join, and his body wasn’t found until May. I went to the police twice to report the threats. They told me that they would do something; but when I saw that they weren’t doing anything to help, I knew I had to leave. (UNCHR report)
Kevin Briseño, 18, and his friend Omar Barrera, 19, from El Salvador, both spoke about why it may be a death sentence for those who try to leave but are caught and sent back.  One friend fled a year and a half ago after he was threatened and gang members murdered his father, a policeman. Their friend was trying to reach his mother in Maryland, but he was stopped in Mexico and returned to San Salvador. "He was murdered the week after he got back," Barrera said, shaking his head. (The Desert Sun, 7/13/14)
Stories relayed at a focus group held by the Women’s Refugee Commission: One girl said she was scared to take public transportation because Honduran gangs are burning buses full of people if the driver doesn’t pay “protection money.” She said gangs also regularly burn jails and houses.  Another girl had to flee because of the rampant killings. Girls as young as nine are being gang-raped by gang members in their home countries. If a girl is impregnated, she will be left to care for the child until he or she is old enough to join the gang.
In Honduras in early May, at least nine children were killed by armed criminal groups in the La Pradera neighborhood in San Pedro Sula. All children were tortured, bound by their hands and feet, and shot in the face multiple times. Some had the skin on their faces peeled off. According to the BBC, the victims were targeted because they refused to join criminal gangs. And this is not just limited to one city. Covenant House reports that murders of children on the rise: 70 in December 2013, 90 each month from January through April 2014, and 102 in May 2014 alone.
Two workers at the San Pedro Sula morgue in Honduras said the number of bodies they receive is significantly higher today than it was a year ago. Stories are also piling up of young children forced to work as lookouts, messengers or spies for the gangs. Eight children, between the ages of 7 and 13, were kidnapped and killed in La Pardera barrio during May. Word on the street is that they were killed for refusing to join the dominant local gang. “In this job you become hardened to seeing death,” says one of the morgue workers who recovered some of the bodies, and asks his name not be published. “But to have to recover a child who has been cut to pieces and burned. That was just too much.” (The Guardian, 7/9/14)
One day in May, seven gang members boarded a public bus in San Salvador, El Salvador's capital. They were looking for two members of a rival gang. But they fired indiscriminately at passengers, killing six people and wounding a score of others, including a 2-year-old. On that day alone, 31 people were murdered in San Salvador. The city averaged more than 12 murders a day in June, according to federal police. "The gangs are in schools, neighborhoods. They're everywhere," said Alison Ramirez, who works on a U.S.-funded, violence-prevention project in El Salvador and frequently visits Honduras and Guatemala. "Even if the kids don't want to be a part of it, they get caught up in the cross fire, extorted, threatened." (The Desert Sun, 7/13/14)
Four children were stabbed to death in May in Limon, a town in the Honduran Caribbean province of Colon, police said. The children, who ranged in age from 2 to 13, were murdered by unidentified individuals when they were left home alone, police chief Daniel Ferrufino told Honduran radio. (Fox News Latino, 5/4/14)